The Astral Log

17 March 2015

Freethought Festival 4, part 2

Filed under: Freethought Festival — Andrew T. @ 00:32

(Continued from Part 1.)

Day two of the conference consisted of every sort of thing day one had to offer and more, with seven speakers and two panels on the itinerary. Unfortunately, I was only able to catch the evening sessions; a small part of the whole...but they were well worth being there for.

After-dinner events began with keynote speaker Susan Jacoby, a prolific nonfiction author, reporter, and former program director for the Center for Inquiry. Her topic was "the conscience of a freethinker;" a dialogue ranging the gamut from specific and topical matters ("There wouldn't be a need for earthly laws if the fear of God controlled people.") to a discussion of more abstract concepts like consequentialism and free will.

Jacoby interacted with the audience and concluded with an extended question-and-answer session where she responded to questions and discussed her future projects. Fellow FTF4 participant Heina Dadabhoy posted an interview of Susan Jacoby on her own website a year ago.

Jacoby was followed by Tommy Nugent...a speaker from Michigan (with West Virginia familial ties, no less). Although ostensibly a comedian, Nugent prefers to be described as a "comedic storyteller."

He continued in conveying the comedic story of his own experience. The formative years of his life were spent cultivating himself in the model of a fundie's dream; attending Christian camp, Christian school, and Christian college, filling himself with the "holy spirit," and bouncing between Baptist and Pentacostal sects with regularity. His recollections were a real eye-opener, particularly when he shared a detailed account of an exorcism being performed on another student at his college. I don't regret not being in his shoes to see that!

The story of his religious career led to an abrupt fall from grace, brush with death, and subsequent bounds up and down through phases of occupations as a law school student and a strip club bartender! The plot took many twists and turns, but eventually led to the present day and an advice point to share: "Your life is more than enough." Nugent was the last speaker of the evening, and he ended the conference on both an energizing and entertaining note.

The day ultimately ended with a long and enjoyable social mixer where I had the chance to meet and chat with Heina from Freethought Blogs, Benny from Queereka, and many other names from both meatspace and cyberspace alike.

I've been an atheist since I was twelve years old, and I'm continually upset by the inequalities and injustices that religion is used as a crutch for...but I won't deny that my view of the atheist movement has been shaken by cynicism in recent years. Both online and off, activism is tarnished by an onslaught of too many harrassers and antihumanist reactionaries intent on grabbing the banner of the movement and tearing its substance down. There's little point in doing away with religion if you keep every element of socioeconomic inequality, sexism/homophobia, magical thinking, and hero-worship that it's used to prop up.

That's why the Freethought Festival was so important: The speakers were diverse, and the conversations had intersectional focus. Topics were focused on tangible, real-world issues; not endless mental masturbation. Everyone played their part and contributed something unique to a sum that's greater than the whole of its parts. That whole (and the skill and collaboration that put it together) was a heartening reminder that we can do good and accomplish tangible social change within our lifetimes.

16 March 2015

Freethought Festival 4

Filed under: Freethought Festival — Andrew T. @ 22:39

This weekend, I attended the fourth annual Freethought Festival in Madison, Wisconsin. The Festival is a free conference of speakers and participants focused on secular issues, organized by the AHA student group at UW-Madison.

After the prerequisite registrations and introductions were over, the weekend kicked off with a powerful speech by James Croft on the impact of the racial killings and resultant protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Croft is an English-born Harvard alumnus and "ethical culture leader" in the Ethical Society of St. Louis, a secular humanist organization that can be thought of as a church-like social construct minus the religion...and located a short distance from the epicenter of activity, which he witnessed firsthand.

The protests were peaceful, well-organized, and well-managed in spite of their depiction in mainstream media. The police donned military garb, physically abused protesters, colluded with a Catholic church to thwart and break up a vigil, and doled out fraudulent charges such as "manner of walking in roadway" with routine aplomb. It's an uncomfortable truth that the cultural narrative deems people of color to be subhuman...and the dogma that we're in a "post-racist meritocracy" is as insidious as the dogma of religion. His takeaway suggestion of what freethinkers could do was simple and urgent: Drop everything else you're doing, listen, and get involved in righting the wrong. His advice couldn't have been more timely, and it isn't limited to Ferguson alone: The sad saga of Tony Robinson provides a cold reminder that race-motivated police brutality exists everywhere, including our own backyards.

Lindsey Doe was the second speaker of the evening, and provided a shift in mood from the hard-hitting to the intimate. Doe is a self-described "sexologist" and Montanan with a YouTube channel.

The bulk of her hour consisted of lessons on consent and female anatomy. She shared a tale about Havelock Ellis—a nineteenth-century figure who battled notions that masturbation was deadly and wet dreams were a symptom of people starting to die—and concluded with a question and answer session where topics like routine non-consensual circumcision bubbled to the surface. (She's against it, of course.)

Altogether, it was informative and entertaining. Her talk was the talk that ought to have been given at my high school...where for fear of offending the fucked-up Christian sensibilities of fundamentalist West Virginia, there was an "abstinence only" curriculum that consisted of absolutely nothing at all.

Vegan comedian and Citizen Radio cohost Jamie Kilstein is getting to be a frequent visitor. This year's appearance at Freethought Festival was his second in two years in a row.

This time around, he brought a guitar and provided instrumental backing for several of his anecdotal stories and routines. Among the fodder at hand was a take-off on his own deconversion (The sight of Niagara Falls filled him with the awe of God, then his wife guided him to the sign explaining how it was made over millions of years), and an extremely pertinent song that he dubbed "Fuck the NRA" where he tackled the perpetrators of school shootings at their core: "'You can kill a kid with a stick. Are you gonna ban sticks?' Now I don't trust you with a stick, either!" "Arm teachers? You don't trust them to unionize, and they can't afford bullets!"

©2015-16 Andrew Turnbull